True confession time. When perched high atop a mountain or a cliff cantilevered over some canyon, with nothing but sky and the occasional magpie before me, I feel the urge to fly.
I want to step off perfectly solid ground, spread my arms, and soar like a bird. I want to hear the wind rushing past my ears as I find out what it’s like to glide without metal wing or motor. I want to plummet like a sock full of rocks at a speed normally reserved for diving raptors.
For the record, I’m a fairly happy guy with a wonderful family, good job and health, and no money woes. I’m mentally stable and don’t sneak off at night to dress farm animals in women’s clothing. This urge of mine has nothing to do with a sour life, psychosis, or suicidal tendencies. It’s more of a wilderness curiosity.
When the sensation surfaced years ago in the Smokies, it terrified me—after I walked away from the precipice and realized I should be scared. While standing on the edge, I’d experienced a blissful rush followed by utter calm.
Like most folks who wonder if they’re cracking, I kept my flight fantasy a secret. I blamed it on bad freeze-dried and let it slide—until it surfaced again in the Canadian Rockies. Then again in South Dakota’s Black Elk Wilderness. And most recently, while standing above Unkar Creek Rapids in the Grand Canyon. Peering straight down a sheer wall, 1,500 feet of shimmering desert air between my toes and Mile 72 of the Colorado River, I felt the urge—or more like the ability—to step off and glide like a raven on the rising thermals.
The experience was so vivid, so pronounced, that months later it still hung in my thoughts. So I decided to ask Backpacker editors—veteran travelers who’ve scampered up mountains all over the world—if they’d experienced anything similar.
The first person I queried looked at me like I’d just asked him to swallow a toad. I took that to mean no.
Then, one of our gear editors almost sheepishly admitted that he’s felt a trembling in his lower extremities when perched on the brink. “It’s like my legs were trying to make the big leap, but my mind was holding me back.” He described it as an unsettling but intriguing sensation.
My next inquiry turned up a staffer who unabashedly testified that he’d felt the urge to fly many a time. In describing his episodes, he sounded almost calm about those moments at the edge, noting that he feels like flying only when in the wilds—never in the city.
When I phoned a few field editors, one immediately handed me off to his spouse, who cheerfully admitted that she’s quite familiar with the feeling; it runs in her family. She’d even called a few psychiatrists, but “no one seems to have heard of it. I guess we fellow flingers will have to come up with a name. I suggest UUTFYOAC (uncontrollable urge to fling yourself off a cliff).”
Emboldened, I called Gregory McNamee, author of such books as Blue Mountains Far Away: Journeys into the American Wilderness and editor of The Mountain World: A Literary Journey. “Sure, I’ve felt it. It’s an odd distortion that makes you think it’s possible to step off mountains and other high places and float gently down to Earth. I attribute it to the thin air, and too many Wile E. Coyote cartoons as a kid.”
Comforted by knowing that I’m not a lone loon sitting on a shaky branch, I wondered about the cause. The “fellow flinger” said the M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s. she consulted told her our urges are the result of an obsessive-compulsive disorder linked to suicidal ideation, major depression, stress, and problems with impulse control. To which she replied, “Sounds like a whole lot of BS to me. How about just being a normal person who wants to leap off something extraordinarily beautiful? Seems simple enough to me.”
“The sensation is not as unusual as you might think,” Robert B. Bechtel, Ph.D., a University of Arizona psychologist and editor of the journal Environment and Behavior, told me. “Early dream analysis interpreted the urge to fly as a desire to excel and be superior. Coming to a cliff is a barrier to going farther, and the only way to go on, to excel, is to fly. A good analyst would ask you to free associate with this sensation and see where it takes you. An anti-analyst would say enjoy it as it is.”
Jack Hearts, an old friend and mountaineer, believes “we humans have an innate desire to fly. It’s an evolutionary thing that comes from several million years of sitting and watching birds. We all dream about not being earthbound.
“It’s a weird, contradictory thing. We have a fear of falling, but a passion for flying. When you’re up high and look straight down, you experience vertigo and terror. But when you look out at the unlimited openness, you feel awe and hope and freedom, which, naturally, you want to experience, so you feel like letting go.”
McNamee thinks that “certain landscapes create altered states of consciousness in us. There’s something about extreme environments that puts our normal fight-or-flight mechanisms to rest, at least temporarily, and allows us to accept our mortality—or at least lulls us into thinking we can somehow escape it.”
Every backpacker knows there’s truth to that notion. When you’re in a place so silent that the only sound is the humming of your brain, it’s easy to fall into a trancelike state, shed your civilized skin, and experience that freedom Hearts alludes to.
Perhaps, in the end, the fantasy of flying is all we need to set our hearts and souls free. The times when I’ve stood at the edge are some of the most emotionally charged and cleansing moments I’ve experienced. When I’ve turned and walked away, I’ve felt transformed, renewed, like I’ve peered through a window to another world.
Who knows, there could be a “flinger” in you, waiting to surface and send you to some high spot looking out onto forever. When it does, and you find yourself on the cusp of a great expanse, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Take it from someone who’s been to the edge and back.